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Herbal treatment of children: A holistic overview of children’s health

Written by Anne McIntyre

Herbal medicines are a safe and effective way to treat an array of children’s ailments. This article explains which herbs are useful, and offers holistic healthcare insights.

Introduction

I hear from many herbalists that treating babies and children can feel a bit daunting. They often have concerns about giving herbs to children and babies and particularly about methods of administration and dosage. Certainly, it can be one thing to treat other people’s children but quite another when treating your own and most likely finding it hard to remain calm and objective. I wrote my first book on treating children in the 1980s when mine were small so that when woken in the middle of the night by a crying child with a high fever and unable to think clearly, I had a manual so that I would know what to do!

In practice it is hard to evaluate the efficacy of herbal treatment of children alone. As we are well aware, herbal medicine does not simply mean the prescribing of medicinal herbs. It encompasses the consultation and the therapeutic relationship between patient and practitioner and the knowledge and expertise of the practitioner within a framework of a theoretical perspective or discipline…whether Western, Chinese, Ayurvedic, Tibetan, Unani etc.

As a synthesis of ancient and modern theories and practices, the underlying philosophy of modern herbal medicine is that health is intimately connected to the harmony of body, mind and spirit which enables a balance of natural forces in the body.  In a clinical context, as herbalists we interpret symptoms of ill health as a disturbance of this balance and consider them within the framework of the patient as a whole – their lives inner and outer.  The now familiar WHO definition of health: “The condition of perfect bodily, spiritual and social well-being and not solely the absence of disease and injury” is a lofty aim but certainly one that we as herbalists aspire to.

Through forty years in practice, in which many of my patients have been children, and having three of my own, I have evolved strategies for their treatment which actually don’t differ much from my strategies for treating adults. In both cases I may need to find tempting ways to ensure compliance! Most of the cases I encounter in practice are chronic, interspersed with some acutes. I will often try to pre-empt acute problems and provide prescriptions and instructions to parents for when they crop up. I have found that the younger children are when first taking herbs the better they are in terms of compliance, especially when this is necessary in treating acute problems.

For each ailment or imbalance a child develops there is a long list of herbs to choose from, some help and others don’t. To understand why, it is useful to look at the basic constitution of the child, set against the environment the child lives in, their diet and lifestyle. The way I have come to understand more about this is through the study and practice of Ayurveda and its constitutional approach to diagnosis and treatment.

From any perspective, the key to a child’s health lies in understanding their natural health tendencies and how to keep them in balance through diet and lifestyle.  Everyone reading this will be aware of most of the factors necessary for health and resilience: plenty of nutritious, preferably organic foods, a balance of work and play, exercise and relaxation, sufficient sleep, a minimum of pollution, and a loving and harmonious home life.

From an Ayurvedic and now modern scientific perspective, good digestion and a healthy microbiome are also central to health, so that the food we eat will be digested and absorbed well and the wastes eliminated efficiently. Our gut is home to a large, diverse and dynamic population of micro-organisms that serve numerous purposes. These include the breakdown and absorption of nutrients necessary for growth and development, immune system function, hormone development and cognitive function.

The symbiotic relationship between our gut and its microbiota is fundamental to our immune system whether a child or adult. The immune system and microbiota exchange chemical signals allowing the immune system to recognise the types of bacteria that are harmful and combat them, while allowing the helpful bacteria to carry out their functions; in turn, the microbiota influence immune reactivity and targeting.

I am a Fellow of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists, a Member of the College of Practitioners of Phytotherapy, and a Member of the Ayurvedic Practitioners’ Association. I have been in clinical practice working as a medical herbalist for nearly years and for the last 30 years have incorporated Ayurvedic philosophy and medicine into my practice, producing an integrated approach to the care of patients and prescription of herbs.

I run a busy practice in Gloucestershire, and lecture widely on herbal medicine and Ayurveda in the UK and USA. I run courses from my home in Gloucestershire where I tend to my beautiful herb garden which is open to the general public by appointment. I also offer online courses in Ayurveda for lay people and other professionals.

Anne McIntyre

I am a Fellow of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists, a Member of the College of Practitioners of Phytotherapy, and a Member of the Ayurvedic Practitioners’ Association. I have been in clinical practice working as a medical herbalist for nearly years and for the last 30 years have incorporated Ayurvedic philosophy and medicine into my practice, producing an integrated approach to the care of patients and prescription of herbs.

I run a busy practice in Gloucestershire, and lecture widely on herbal medicine and Ayurveda in the UK and USA. I run courses from my home in Gloucestershire where I tend to my beautiful herb garden which is open to the general public by appointment. I also offer online courses in Ayurveda for lay people and other professionals.

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